I imagine views on Taoism differ more greatly among people than views on any other ‘ism’ out there. Even the term ‘Taoism’ is misleading. You could say that Taoist thought is too subtle, even mysterious, to be pinned down in an ‘ism’. The first line of the Tao Te Ching exemplifies this: The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way. The ‘possible to think‘ characteristic of belief itself forms the foundation of every ‘ism’. The next line, The name possible to express runs counter to the constant name, reinforce the Taoist ‘disclaimer’. These two disclaimers make it plain that Taoist thought is in a category of its own, strangely beyond belief.
Belief and the explicit and implicit biases we absorb throughout life deeply affect the long-term quality of life. Accordingly, CenterTao.org focuses on the how, what, and why we think what we think with the aim to neutralize biases and deepen self-understanding to the extent possible.
One of the best questions I ever asked myself was, “What and why is there religion in the first place?” From the outset, I felt the discoveries of paleo-art of the Lower Paleolithic period (about 2,500,000 to 200,000 years ago) as essential to pondering the cognitive characteristics of this period’s Hominins. What inspired the artistic creativity in this group of modern humans, extinct human species, and our immediate ancestors (including members of the genera Homo, Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Ardipithecus)?
From a symptoms point of view, the most straightforward hypothesis is that this creative drive is symptomatic of the hominins’ concurrent cognitive evolution at that time. Language, and specifically the profoundly dialectic nature of human language, splits reality into two camps, so to speak. Yin and yang are classic representations of this polar point of view that pervades human cognition, and hence perception. In a sense, the dialectic nature of language with its yin & yang schism causes us to feel a visceral sense of disconnection from Nature, which drives us to find ways to connect and feel Oneness again — enter spirituality and religion.
Re + ligare
Interestingly, the word religion tells the story of its core purpose. The Latin root of religion is re- again, back, anew + ligare – to bind, to connect. Does religion work? It does to a degree perhaps. However, the lingering depth of disconnection modern humans ultimately feel, post the Agricultural Revolution, is the outcome of the shift from the egalitarian culture of hunter-gatherers to the hierarchical one that civilization necessitates. Religion is probably at best a palliative, and at its worst, an elitist justification to discriminate and subjugate.
Adapt and cope we must
The empirically obvious answer to my question, “What and why is there religion in the first place?” is this: Spirituality arose in concert with dialectic thought to help humans cope with the polarizing nature of dialectic thought. Spirituality then morphed into a more political form — religion — to help counterbalance the cultural stresses that followed in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution, its technological advances, and large ‘civilized’ populations. In short, spirituality and religion are evolving cultural frameworks that help people cope with life.
Interestingly, ‘advances’ in religious thought and practice have time and again followed advances in technology over the ages. Consider the momentous change that occurred in religious paradigms as the Iron Age began to replace the Neolithic and Bronze Age beginning around 1500 B.C.E. The previous Neolithic pagan religions then began to give way to Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Centuries later came Christianity and Islam.
It is hard to appreciate now, but the advent of a cheap and abundant supply of iron tools was as destabilizing on society as was the Industrial Revolution in recent centuries. Now, heaven knows what the long-term impact of the Electric Revolution will be on culture, but we certainly are experiencing the destabilizing influence of the harnessing of electricity and all that this enables, e.g., cars, tanks, planes, radios, computers, telephones, movies, nuclear engineering, genetic engineering… ad infinitum.
Ideally, religion is a way for people to cope with life’s changing circumstances. Alas, religion always returns to the least common denominator — human instinct — and loses sight of its founding fundamentals. A Taoist worldview can be a ‘way’ of last resort to those for who mainstream religion ceases being a helpful way to cope.
Reunite and Return
It is easier to understand a major aim of religion and Taoist thought by considering our core problem. The view that humanity has lost its ‘Eden’, of one sort or other, is common among many religions. Indeed, the Biblical story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden shares common ground with the Taoist view. Their problem began when desire drove them to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which caused them to become aware of their nakedness.
The Taoist view soon parts company with most religions, however, especially in regards to what to do about the problem. As I mentioned above, the word religion itself comes from the Latin word for re-unite, which itself suggests a universal question: How can we re-unite with the innocent state of pre-knowledge and in so doing, return to ‘Eden’?
Taoist thought points out a way to return to this ‘original self’ as much as practicable. This hinges upon first realizing that words, names, and the knowledge of good and evil, are a principle reason we feel disunited — disconnected. Then 10,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution added to this schism between Nature and ourselves by displacing the uniting egalitarian ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors with the hierarchical social system we know as civilization. Essentially, civilization, with its emphasis on specialization, literacy, and social ranking is socially disconnecting, and yet it is also essential for organizing large settled populations. This is an excellent example of how the solution can be the problem.
In effect, civilization tames people by vigorously instilling in them a plethora of cultural ‘norms’ and stories from infancy onward. Let’s face it, such deep-seated domestication (civilizing us) is the only way to get large populations to settle down into more or less peaceful and cooperative coexistence. This comes at a stiff price. Here are a few examples to which the Tao Te Ching alludes.
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results. (#16) The advent of civilization led to an exponential development of technology, which then facilitates an exponential rise in rash actions.
When intelligence increases, there exists great falseness. (#18) Civilization favors particular and narrow aspects of intelligence that promise success (‘survival’) in the circumstances of civilization.
Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease (#71) Civilization needs people to believe that they know. This ensures faith and trust in the stories that unite a culture socially, politically and religiously. Expertise, and any hubris in ‘being in the know’, is rewarded as long as it conforms to the culture’s norms.
Civilizations strive to bring their large hierarchical layered populations together ‘on the same page’ by connecting the individual to the culture’s social story. This only works up to a point. Nothing can possibly replace the birth-to-death instilled sense of social connection that our ancestral egalitarian ways of old instilled in people (1). With civilization came a much deeper sense of Eden lost. Taoist thought points a way to return. As these lines from chapter 16 puts it,
Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness.
Everything ‘out there’ rises up together, and I watch again.
Everything ‘out there’, one and all, return again to their root cause.
Returning to the root cause is called stillness; this means answering to one’s destiny.
Answering to one’s destiny is called the constant; knowing the constant is called honest.
. . . Well, it sounds good in theory anyway. 😉
(1) It will truly help to know the details about our hunter-gatherer ways of old. That background helps you see outside the box vis-à-vis civilization. Indeed, being born in civilization makes it nearly impossible to appreciate the tradeoff humanity made in leaving the hunter-gatherer way. As luck would have it, expeditions in the 1950’s studied the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert in ethnographic detail; the !Kung being the last surviving ‘wild’ hunter-gatherer culture in the world.
These are a few books: The Harmless People followed by The old way: a story of the first people are more than enough to make the point, if you’re receptive. Lorna Marshall’s books, Kung of Nyae Nyae and Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rites, offer more ethnographic detail for anyone wishing to deepen their sense of the old way.
What is Taoist Thought?
Reading the Tao Te Ching is the best, if not the only, way to answer this question. I bought my first copy at age 22, and upon first reading, only a chapter or two rang true — the others were not persuasive. Interestingly, the Tao Te Ching gradually revealed itself over the ensuing decades… or did it? I found that the evolution in understanding actually hinges upon the self-understanding accumulated through a lifetime of experience, with the painful ones being the most revealing.
The legendary author of the Tao Te Ching was Lao Tzu, which translates as: 老 lǎo = old; aged; old people; of long standing + 子 zǐ = son; child; person; virtuous man; seed. I see that as metaphorically saying that Taoist thought comes easier as we age. Keep this in mind if you are younger now. Plan on being bewildered. Indeed, the more comfortable you grow with uncertainty, the more your thoughts will become Taoist in nature.
Now I’ll briefly cover some of the main aspects of a Taoist point of view. Note, the Tao Te Ching excerpts I use in this “What is Taoist Thought?” section are from D.C. Lau’s translation, which is less literal and thus may be easier to read and ponder.
A brief overview
Tao means way in Chinese. Anything said beyond that is tentative, for as the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching states: “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way. The name that can be named is not the constant name.” So, consider this overview with that in mind.
We react to life according to how we perceive it. If a perception is out of touch with natural reality, we react in unbalanced ways that waste time, energy, and bring about unnecessary chaos and suffering. Taoist thought seeks to solve this problem at its perceptual source. As the Tao Te Ching puts it: “Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant…”
Taoist thought offers us a way to see through the chaos of life, and realize within ourselves this “constant”. How does Taoist thought do this?
Taoist thought rests on the view that reality is complementary; nature is inherently cooperative — not competitive. The Chinese black and white Yin-Yang circle symbolizes this balancing principle. Consider the following excerpts from the Tao Te Ching that illustrate this circular relationship.
Knowing this circular relationship moderates extremes and allows us to look deeper. Referring to opposites, another verse states: “These two are the same, but diverge in name as they issue forth. Being the same they are called mysteries, mystery upon mystery — the gateway of the manifold secrets.”
Easing the distinction between opposites helps us sense a deeper reality, as this excerpt reminds us: “…Untangle the knots; soften the glare; settle the dust. This is known as mysterious sameness.”
Even more challenging to our idealized view of life: “The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.”
There are a few verses in the Tao Te Ching which attempt to describe the “constant way” more directly. Here are some excerpts:
“The way is empty, yet use will not drain it. Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures… Darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there. I know not whose son it is. It images the forefather of God.”
If you find this approach promising, examine CenterTao.org thoroughly for practical ways to implement the principles set forth here.